Protecting Special Needs Adults
Part 3 in a series on creating a safe, welcoming ministry.
Protecting Special Needs Adults

Mike Dobes has overseen the Church Relationships Department of Joni and Friends for the past three and a half years. His department provides training and materials to local churches all over the country, equipping them to serve individuals with disabilities in a ministry setting.

We spoke with Mike about how churches can best begin (or improve) their ministries to individuals with special needs. With reports of sexual abuse in churches toward special needs individuals on the rise, Dobes took the time to tell us how to create ministry work that's both inviting—and safe.

This is the third post in a three-part series. You can also read about first steps for special needs ministry (part 1) and how to protect children in special needs ministry (part 2).

Do you have any specific safety considerations for individuals who work with special needs adults?

Whatever the policy is for the youngest child in the church, apply those policies all the way through. Volunteers working with adults' ministries should still be vetted, screened, go through a background check, required to never be alone with a ministry participant—all of those same parameters should still exist.

We're really diligent in children's ministry, we're more lax in high school ministry, and then with adults we just assume people are adults and can take care of themselves. But really, we need the same parameters no matter the situation.

How would you advise caring for an adult with special needs who has less physical boundaries or tends toward being inappropriate?

One thing I emphasize with volunteers working with adults is that there are some disabilities that create physical outbursts or expressions. If a volunteer has a kindergarten child with autism lash out and hit or pull hair, any volunteer can most likely get herself or himself away and help in a safe way to restrain the child. But if that same behavior is coming out in a 35-year-old 6'3" male, there's a whole different consideration there. And then you need to figure out if you need more volunteers working with that one individual.

We'll have young adults with disabilities come to our family retreat camp each summer, and they're more imposing to our volunteers, so we plan ahead. For example, we'll say, "This person is tall and strong, and he'll need three male buddies with him at all times."

On the flipside, sometimes you'll have individuals with disabilities who don't have appropriate social filters, whether that's sexual or physical—sometimes the disability makes the person the aggressor. So training is needed there, too.

For example, my wife and I were at an event this summer, and there was a seventeen-year-old boy who was following her, asking her to hold his hand. And she told him, "I'm sorry, I only hold my husband's hand." It wasn't demoralizing to him; it was kind, and his mom thanked my wife later on, telling her that they're working with him on that issue.

It's about having proper boundaries and working with the right individuals to minimize potential issues.

Ashley Grace Emmert is a writer and editor who lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her sweet Southern husband and their small scrappy dogs. Find her at or on Twitter at @ashgemmert.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

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